I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: probably the best thing about the FA Cup is that it gives lower-league clubs a few minutes in the sun. (So to speak. This is England in wintertime, after all.) The Fourth Round of the FA Cup is this weekend and will feature three nonleague teams, plus seven more from League One and League Two. It’s a good spread, and the lower-league teams that are playing this weekend will no doubt make the most of their day.
A strong run in the Cup can be something that defines an era for a club. For a nonleague club that makes it this far in the tournament, a run to the Third or Fourth round can be a bold header in their Wikipedia article. It’s a big, big deal, is what I’m trying to say. And, most importantly, a strong run can lead to some very big things indeed.
This week we look back at one club who made the most of their FA Cup moment— Accrington Stanley, in the 2003-04 season.
So Accrington Stanley, currently in League Two, are the continuation of the original club founded in 1891. That club folded in 1966, but a new club bearing the same name was formed two years later. Their home patch, the Crown Ground, is currently one of the smallest in the English Football League. (It was the smallest until Crawley Town won promotion back to the Football League some years ago.)
The 2003-04 season was their first in the Football Conference (since rebranded the National League), the top level of nonleague football and right on the cusp of the Football League. After a shaky start to the league campaign, Accrington pulled themselves together and strung together a solid run of mid-table form. They ended up finishing 10th in the league that season— not bad, all things considered.
But it was the FA Cup where they really shone.
Accrington were drawn at home in the First Round of the Cup against Huddersfield Town, who at the time were in what is now League Two. Obviously, the league took top priority for both sides, but the FA Cup offers an opportunity for smaller clubs too tantalizing to ignore. This is where the “magic” of the FA Cup comes from— the prides of small towns and communities going full-tilt for a taste of glory.
The match itself wasn’t the most memorable 90 minutes of football you’ll remember. Some back-and-forth, but on the whole the quality was typical for what you’d expect in early FA Cup rounds. And as regulation time came to a close and the referee started contemplating blowing the whistle, it looked as if there might have to be a replay.
And then, this:
That’s Andy Gouck, brought on as a late substitute, hitting an absolute screwball stunner to put Stanley ahead in stoppage time and send the Crown Ground into utter madness. It was, to put it plainly, the kind of moment that makes the FA Cup what it was.
Accrington dispatched Huddersfield and then beat Bournemouth in the Second Round on penalties in a replay. Their raid came to an end in the Third Round when Colchester United sent them out in the replay. But it was an incredible run, and Accrington fans still talk about that game, and that goal, to this day.
Stanley used that run in the Cup to build for the future. Two seasons later they won promotion to the Football League, where they’ve not only remained but even challenged for promotion as recently as last season. Accrington, like so many smaller clubs that you might never hear about but for the FA Cup, are small but very, very mighty.
They’re back in action in the Fourth Round this Saturday, when they travel to Premier League newcomers Middlesbrough. It won’t be on TV, but if you don’t mind Twitter or other alternative forms of match coverage, you can follow the Club That Wouldn’t Die fight to stay in the Cup when they kickoff at 10am Eastern.